I never really understood the notion of the ‘expat’ – why would you want to move and live abroad for so long? A holiday, a bit of slow travel or even an internship seemed fine because the time was finite and eventually you would return. In the words of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz: “There’s no place like home.” However, moving to China taught me one thing – that maybe ‘home’ is a fluid term because it doesn’t take all that long for a new place to feel like somewhere you’ve always been.
Having just passed the half way point of our internship here in China we are starting to look to what will happen next. We considered staying on. Yes that’s right! Staying in China for another semester or even a whole year! If you’ve been keeping up with our posts you’ll have read about our ‘week from hell’ and will appreciate how far we must have come to consider this. To be honest it would be an excellent opportunity. China is definitely one of the key places to be if you are looking to TEFL as there are so many opportunities leading to competitive salaries, great perks and the chance to explore a fantastically diverse country. We had the option of staying at our current school, finding a placement through our in-country team ImmerQi, working for EduChina, searching for a job on the i-to-i TEFL jobs board or using one of many recruitment agencies with our new find New Life ESL. However, even though we worked out we could save around £30 000 (as a couple if we negotiated the right contract but continued to live cheaply which is easy to do whilst still eating Western on weekends and travelling every other weekend!) we are not motivated by money and wanted to keep to the original plan and dream – to travel the world!! So now we are making plans: what is our exit route out of China? How will we get back to the UK? Where will we go next? You can read more about our plans on our new blog post.
For those of you about to come out to China or at least willing to consider it, here is an update about how China has really become our new home and why we will be sad to say goodbye. Though maybe it will only be ‘Au Revoir.’
The teaching load has fluctuated but overall has been constantly heading in an ever decreasing direction. The main reason for this is that we work in a Senior High school so have had many students in Year 12 on leave to prepare for their eventual move to University. As the offers come in we also have more students opting not to attend as it doesn’t have any effect on their overall pass. Instead they choose to use their time to pursue other avenues e.g. learning to drive, additional study for their AP subjects or University preparation. Year 11 has also decreased from 20 students per class to less than 10 as at the moment they are often on leave too as they prepare for their TOEFL exam – a key decider for which Universities will send them offers. As a consequence our teaching hours dropped dramatically which meant we had to go back to the drawing board to look at how to get the hours we needed for our internship. This wasn’t a concern for other teachers we work with as they can use the time to prepare for next Semester (if they are staying on!).
Luckily ImmerQi were very supportive and our school very helpful as we were able to negotiate some one-to-one coaching time with our Year 10 students. We now get a 10-15 minute slot once a week with every one of our Year 10 students (that’s around 24 students each!) This is already proving invaluable as we can give them the personalised support that they require with their speaking practice and we really feel that we are making a difference. After the initial success with Year 10 we have also introduced the same for the remaining Year 11 students we have too and further added to our repertoire of teaching styles. This will be great as we look to developing as TEFL teachers.
Be prepared to be flexible, especially if you already have some teaching experience. Things in China move at their own pace, there is often “lost in translation” issues and it doesn’t always seem logical at first. If you go with the flow, you’ll be fine. As a Chinese person once told me: “No hurry, no worry!”
It’s warm now, hot even. It makes a huge difference to live somewhere that greets you with sunshine every morning (a rarity in the UK). Walking to work without having to wear five or six layers is great, plus we no longer have any use for hats, scarfs and gloves. However, with warm temperatures comes humid weather so we have had an occasional monsoon-style storm. As long as you carry an umbrella though, you will be fine. They don’t tend to last too long though we have had a couple of massive thunder storms but watching the lightning from our 11th floor apartment has been pretty amazing.
Top tip: If you are coming to China for several months or more then pack for every eventuality. The winters can be cold but before you know it, it is suddenly the summer. With summer there is the potential for hot humid weather which can lead to the occasional downpour. That said, everything is easy and cheap to purchase over here, including both summer and winter clothing, as well as ponchos and umbrellas.
In and around Wuxi
Wuxi is an up and coming area especially for Westerners with an ever increasing expat community. It’s proximity to Shanghai is also a strong draw to teachers looking to get work in China as the adjustment won’t be quite so extreme. There are many companies linking teachers to jobs in this area and so even though you may never have heard of this location then don’t let that put you off. We were, and remain, pleasantly surprised by our local area. It’s true that Meicun (where we actually live in Wuxi) is a little more remote but that allows us to live cheaply during the week and easily access a more Western and familiar lifestyle when we want it by heading downtown. Downtown Wuxi is not dissimilar from any Western city comprising large department stores, a culinary mix of restaurants, IMAX cinemas and a clean and efficient public transport network. It juxtaposes this modern world beside temples, pagodas, canal-ways and traditional local life allowing you to remind yourself (and immerse yourself) you are still in China.
Top tip: Get to know the area you are living in. Talk to others (particularly Westerners at first) to learn how to get around, where to eat and what to see or do. Use the internet to source expat communities and make links with local events. Visiting a hostel, (if there is one) even if you don’t intend to stay, is a great way to find out what’s happening in the local area, if there are any meet ups and pick up some literature and what you can do and how to get around.
Exploring further afield
Exploring the country in depth is one of the benefits of working abroad. As a teacher you will have time to do this but it will depend on the school/centre you work in and the contract you agree. Most schools have the weekends free and depending on your contract and office hours agreed you may have additional time on top of this (e.g. free mornings or afternoons off). There are several national holidays that schools seem to observe and we have been lucky to have some additional time off when exams are in progress and we have not been needed. Regardless of the time you have available it is great to get out and about. The high-speed train network in China is modern, efficient and very clean. Even the older sleeper trains run to an easy to understand schedule with a range of classes to suit all tastes. We have found ctrip.com to be a great place to check schedules and have always just turned up at the train station and bought tickets with no problems. For busier holidays, it is worth planning ahead and buying tickets early. A bilingual teacher at your school will be the best person to ask for assistance with this.
It may be difficult at first to know where to go. Start with the larger tourist centres which you can read about in a guidebook – we recommend the Lonely Planet China guide, which highlighted Suzhou, Shanghai and Nanjing as being in our province. When you feel a little braver then try asking around to see what others recommend, or look at the locations of hostels. We even brought a YHA China youth hostel card which can be used internationally at more than 4000 hostels. The way we see it is, if there is a hostel there, then there must be something to see and other visitors arriving. Plus, the card gives a 10% discount on already reasonably priced rooms in locations which are usually central to what you would want to see. With many of the major towns (in the East at least) having a metro system – there is nothing to worry about in heading to a new place.
Top tip: start nearby for a day trip perhaps before broadening your travels. Use guidebooks, the internet and locals to source out new places to explore. When buying train tickets before you are fluent in Mandarin (we wish!) then write the name of the place/train number you wish to get clearly on a piece of paper and this will be adequate for booking train tickets. If unsure then just use your phrasebook to ask (though if you target someone between the age of 16 – 20 it is possible they have or are learning English!) as every Chinese person we have met so far seems very friendly and helpful.
Half way through and yes we can string a sentence together. Does anyone understand us? Sometimes. This is mainly due to us though. We aren’t particularly good at learning languages in the first place and we do tend to neglect practising. Furthermore, this is the first time we have had to deal with learning a tonal language. We do know a lot of words, how to write them in pinyin and how to construct simple sentences. However, the tone used can change the meaning into four completely different words. The same word is used for both ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ with only the tone changing. Equally true for ‘white’ and ‘North.’
Regardless of the challenges, we haven’t given up and have successfully ordered food and drink as well as asked for the receipt/bill amount in a restaurant. We have also managed to buy a string of train tickets and even got Anthony a hair cut – apparently the best one he has ever had. Resorting to charades does still occur on a weekly basis as we try to act out what we mean but that’s all part of the fun of living and working abroad. Luckily the Chinese locals are all very friendly and try their best to help us. Sometimes we all just fall into fits of laughter. Luckily the smile is universal.
Top tip: If you want to come to China and learn the language then focus on the sounds of the initials and finals as well as the tones. Once you have cracked this, you can start to learn pinyin (a way of writing Chinese using the Roman alphabet). This is a language that you need to speak aloud and get as much practice as you can. Try to find a partner to practice with either at your place of work, in your local community or over the internet. Don’t worry so much about the characters at first.
More tips on moving to China for work, study or travel.
We will be writing a series of shorter posts on tips for moving to and living in China which will be displayed on our blog over the next month. If you have anything you would like to see in those posts then please contact us or comment below. If you have lived in China yourself and have any tips to add then we would also love to hear from you.